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Why Jimmy Carter deserved my vote — and that of other Black Americans

AP Photo/John Bazemore
Former President Jimmy Carter speaks as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams listens during a news conference to announce her rural health care plan on Sept. 18, 2018, in Plains, Ga.

The first time I voted for president, I was a college student in New York City in 1980. I was intrigued by Jimmy Carter as he campaigned for re-election, wondering why a southern white man had strong support in the Black community. The sad news that the 98-year old former president is under home hospice care brought back memories of those days of crisis.

That summer, I had a chance to see Carter at the NAACP national convention in Miami Beach. It occurred shortly after a riot over police brutality in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Liberty City and Overtown in Miami. In December 1979, four white police officers were charged with the beating death of motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie, an insurance salesman and Marine veteran. The trial presented incriminating evidence to an all-white jury — which acquitted the officers on May 17, 1980.

The verdict ignited a conflagration as angry people in Liberty City and Overtown burned buildings, attacked cars and chased down fleeing motorists. The riot left 15 people dead, caused $100 million in property damage, and exacerbated racial tensions across the country. In June, Carter flew to Miami to discuss the social and racial unrest that led to the incident, saying, “Violence cannot breed justice. Hate can only poison and ultimately destroy our hopes for the future,” he said. “Our Constitution calls on the national government to establish justice — including social justice — and also to ensure domestic tranquility. I am committed to doing both.”

Later, Carter witnessed the burned ruins, visited with community leaders, and endured boos from demonstrators who carried signs that read, “Remember McDuffie.” As the presidential limousine left a community center, it was struck by rocks and a bottle thrown from the crowd.

That July, Carter returned to Miami Beach as a featured speaker at the NAACP national convention. The convention brought influential Black political leaders to the site of the tragedy. I recall the mood of widespread discontent over the riot, police brutality, and crises like the recession, inflation at 14.6 percent, unemployment at 8 percent and other crises.

Yet, there was positive feeling for Carter even after earlier presentations by Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, a challenger from the party’s left wing, and independent John Anderson. (Ronald Reagan declined an invitation to speak.) I left with the impression of Carter as an ordinary man grappling with extraordinary problems who deserved to receive my vote.

‘The time for racial discrimination is over’

Jimmy Carter was the son of a segregationist peanut farmer and registered nurse. Growing up in Archery, Ga., he attended an all-white school in nearby Plains; however, he appeared to have escaped the pull of the white power culture with the encouragement of his broad-minded mother. And with the support of Rosalynn Smith, his childhood girlfriend, he embarked on a quixotic political career.

Carter envisioned a racially diverse coalition of rural white evangelical Christians, business leaders, moderate urban whites, and enfranchised Black voters in Georgia. He displayed an early appreciation for the emerging role of Black citizens in American politics. His vision of racial democracy in the South belied his upbringing in the culture of white supremacy; the state’s history bridged slavery, expulsion of Indian nations, Confederate rebellion, Jim Crow politics, and violent resistance to civil rights.

Carter proposed an audacious coalition in a state that, four years earlier, had elected Democratic governor Lester Maddox on a platform of segregation. Maddox came to national attention in 1964 as the owner of Pickrick Restaurant, a segregated fried chicken joint in Atlanta. After passage of the Civil Rights Act, he refused to serve three Black college students who entered the restaurant. Instead, he wielded an ax handle and threatened them with bodily harm until they fled. Then, he placed a box of ax handles — known as “Pickrick drumsticks” — outside the door as a warning sign.

Maddox opted to close the restaurant rather than serve Black customers, and parlayed his notoriety into a statewide political career. In 1965, he ran for governor on a segregationist and state’s rights platform. He won in a contested election that was decided by the General Assembly. Unable to run for a second term, Maddox watched Carter emerge as a refreshing moderate voice for governor.

Carter campaigned as a businessman, peanut farmer and Navy veteran — and the face of the progressive New South. He was well mannered, educated, and forward-looking, in contrast to the media depiction of tobacco-chewing sheriffs and hate-spewing governors of the Old South, as chronicled by historian Robert Strong in “Jimmy Carter: Domestic Affairs.” Elected as the state’s 76th governor (1971-1975), Carter used his inauguration to signal a new direction for his party and the state when he declared, “The time for racial discrimination is over.”

As governor, Carter took steps to advance racial democracy in Georgia, as described by Nadra Kareem Nittle in “President Jimmy Carter’s Record on Civil Rights and Race Relations.” For example, he opposed election laws devised to undercut the Black vote and increased the number of Black executives appointed to state agencies. He supported affirmative action policies to hire Black workers for government jobs.

By today’s standards, such practices might be seen as token gestures, but in Georgia at the time it was considered far-reaching. It earned him a following in the national Black community.

‘The man from Plains, Georgia’

During his 1976 presidential campaign, Carter appealed to Black voters, rural white evangelical Christians, and the traditional Democratic base of labor, white ethnics, and other groups. Known as “The man from Plains, Georgia,” he was seen as an American original — a populist Democrat on a mission to restore public faith in government after the shame of Watergate. Yet, he struggled to mesh the conflicting interests of diverse coalition partners during the campaign. And he was not immune from making statements that raised the eyebrows of cautious Black voters, such as supporting “ethnic purity” in public housing, a confusing statement he later retracted.

Elected as the 39th U.S. president, Carter made racially diverse appointments much like he did as governor. He promoted federal “set-aside programs” that steered procurements to minority- and women-owned small businesses. He increased funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and supported affirmative action initiatives. This was a time when Black Americans experienced occupational mobility in public service employment.

Beyond policies for inclusive government, however, the Carter presidency lurched from crisis to crisis in a transformational era of disinvested cities, loss of manufacturing, white working class resentments, and global oil shocks. During the 1979 energy crisis, the second of the decade, Carter called for austerity from a frustrated public. He asked people to turn down thermostats and drive at slower highway speeds to conserve fuel. His administration was depicted as inept by the media and feeble by opponents.

Looking back on that period, it would be nice to say that my first vote for president was a winner. However, Jimmy Carter lost handily to Ronald Reagan — and the defeat signaled an end to a time of Black civil rights and middle-class expansion. He was shunned by the Democratic establishment and, for a time, vanished from the public eye. My impression was that the sentence of political exile was undeserved. Some friends even adapted a line from the song “Jimmy Mack” by Martha and the Vandellas to the former president: “Jimmy, Jimmy, Oh, Jimmy Mack, when are you comin’ back?”

Indeed, Jimmy Carter did come back with a new way to model his faith in the promise of America. He did so by supporting human rights overseas and speaking out on behalf of the unfinished quest for racial justice at home. In 2002, he joined Martin Luther King Jr. as only the second Georgian to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. His work was a crusade to establish a racially inclusive democracy — and needs to be completed.  

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston, and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.” Since 2014, he has published, a curated website on African American history and culture.

Tags civil rights Jimmy Carter Post-presidency of Jimmy Carter Presidency of Jimmy Carter racial divide

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